A space princess on the run and a notorious outlaw soldier become unlikely allies in this imaginative, sexy space opera adventure—the first in an exciting science fiction trilogy.
In the far distant future, the universe is officially ruled by the Royal Consortium, but the High Councillors, the heads of the three High Houses, wield the true power. As the fifth of six children, Ada von Hasenberg has no authority; her only value to her High House is as a pawn in a political marriage. When her father arranges for her to wed a noble from House Rockhurst, a man she neither wants nor loves, Ada seizes control of her own destiny. The spirited princess flees before the betrothal ceremony and disappears among the stars.
Ada eluded her father’s forces for two years, but now her luck has run out. To ensure she cannot escape again, the fiery princess is thrown into a prison cell with Marcus Loch. Known as the Devil of Fornax Zero, Loch is rumored to have killed his entire chain of command during the Fornax Rebellion, and the Consortium wants his head.
When the ship returning them to Earth is attacked by a battle cruiser from rival House Rockhurst, Ada realizes that if her jilted fiancé captures her, she’ll become a political prisoner and a liability to her House. Her only hope is to strike a deal with the dangerous fugitive: a fortune if he helps her escape.
But when you make a deal with an irresistibly attractive Devil, you may lose more than you bargained for . . .
The steel toe of my boot slammed into the blond merc’s knee with a satisfying crunch. He went down with a curse, but the two men holding my arms didn’t release me, even as I struggled in their grasp. The blow had been more luck than skill, but it was enough to make the fourth mercenary pause before trying to grab my legs again.
I planted my feet and pushed back as hard as I could. The men behind me barely budged. I was a decently strong woman, but they each outweighed me by fifty or more pounds and the physics just weren’t on my side. My self-defense tutor had warned me that one day I would regret slacking off in lessons—turns out, she was right.
“Stop fighting, you little bitch, or I’ll stun you again,” the blond warned. He climbed to his feet and waved his stunstick as if I needed a visual reminder. He wasn’t the ship’s captain, so he must be the mercenary commander. He was young for commander, but mercs weren’t known to have long lives.
The ship’s captain stood back while the merc crew tried to wrestle me farther into the ship. The skin around his left eye was fiercely red. He’d have a shiner by tomorrow, thanks to me. That blow had been more skill than luck, but not enough to save me.READ MORE
The captain was a handsome man, older, with gray at the temples of his dark hair. He looked like a gentleman, not a bounty hunter, and that had allowed him to get close enough to grab me. The rest of his crew was standard-issue mercenary: big, mean, and calculating. As soon as I’d caught sight of them, I’d known that I’d made a mistake.
I hoped it wouldn’t be my last.
I fought on, determined. As long as the ship was still docked, I had a chance. I could escape and disappear into the crowds of the space station until I could find another ship. I was good at hiding.
The blond lost his patience. Before I could kick him away, he hit me with the stunstick. I screamed as my body lit up in agony. The mercs dropped me. My head hit the metal deck and pain blazed bright before dulling to a low throb. The world went dark and floaty.
“John, what are you doing? Don’t hurt her!” the captain shouted. “If she shows up with so much as a bruise, von Hasenberg will kill the lot of us.”
“Where do ya want her?” one of the other men asked.
“She can stay in my—” the captain started, but the blond, presumably John, cut him off.
“Put her in with Loch. That’ll teach the little hellion a lesson. It’s not like he’s using the space anyway.”
The crew laughed uneasily. Whoever Loch was, he made them nervous, and it took a lot to rattle a merc crew. Yay for me.
I tried to struggle as they picked me up by my arms and legs, but my muscles weren’t responding, thanks to the blow to the head. And the nanobots in my blood that should be repairing any tissue damage were also susceptible to the stunstick. They’d recover in a few minutes, but until then I had to wait for natural healing.
Nanobots, or nanos, were available to anyone who could afford the exorbitant price tag. I’d been injected with them as a newborn.
A door squeaked open and the men cursed quietly as they tried to maneuver me through the opening.
“Put her on the bed,” the captain said. “Carefully.”
“Why, Gerald, you shouldn’t have,” a deep voice rumbled from within the room.
“I didn’t,” the captain snapped. “She’s worth three times what you are, Loch, so you don’t want to make me choose which of you to keep,” he continued. “Keep your comments to yourself or I’ll purge you. Same thing happens if you even look at her sideways.”
One of the men grumbled something too low to catch.
“She give you that eye?” Loch asked. “Did you try to get some on the side and she took offense?”
“Stun him,” the captain said flatly.
The electric hiss of a stunstick was followed by a grunt. I’d never heard anyone get stunned without screaming; it didn’t seem possible.
I cracked my eyes open a tiny bit. The light panel on the ceiling glowed softly. Were there supposed to be two of them?
“She’s coming to,” one of the men warned.
I squinted, trying to get my vision to clear, and when that didn’t work, I closed my eyes and willed the nanos to work faster. They weren’t affected by my desire for speed, sadly, so I resigned myself to wait.
“Everyone out. Pull up the separator and leave it up. Let’s see how the little princess likes her new palace,” John said.
The faint ozone smell of an active energy field reached my nose. Booted footsteps exited the room, then the door creaked closed and locked with a metallic thunk.
I wiggled my fingers and toes. It was a start.
“You alive?” Loch asked.
“Mostly,” I slurred. “They stunned me then dropped me headfirst onto the deck. I’ll live.”
“Where are we?”
“Station orbiting Theta Sagittarii Dwarf One,” I said. I sat up and closed my eyes against the light-headedness. In addition to my throbbing head, I was sore from being hit with a stunstick twice in an hour. Overall, it could’ve been worse, but not by much.
“Damn,” he muttered. I was with him there. I didn’t know why he was concerned, but I knew that we were just two short jumps away from the gate that would deliver us directly to Earth. That only gave me a little over a week—in open space no less—to escape.
I cracked my eyes open. I sat on a narrow cot with a thin mattress and no sheets or blankets. A quick glance confirmed I was in a standard holding cell on a Yamado frigate—only the Yamados etched their House symbol, a crane, on every door.
Far more interesting than the Yamado door was the man sharing the cell with me. Even through the slight distortion of the blue energy barrier, I saw that deeply bronzed flesh wrapped his heavily muscled frame. Broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist with rippling abs. Defined arms and muscled legs completed the picture.
It was only after I’d stared for a solid five seconds that I realized why I was seeing quite so much of him: he had been stripped down to only a skintight pair of black boxer briefs.
I jerked my gaze up to his face and blinked in surprise when I met luminescent eyes. But when I met his eyes a second time, they were brown. Ocular augments existed, but as far as I knew, they permanently altered your eyes. It could’ve been a trick of the light, but it was worth watching.
His gaze was sharp and direct. Several weeks’ worth of dark beard shadowed his jaw. His hair was the same length and I wondered if he normally kept his head shaved. The scruffiness made it hard to tell his exact age, but he was probably a few years older than my twenty-three.
“Like what you see?” he asked with a smirk.
“Yes,” I said after a few more seconds of frank appraisal. Surprise flashed across his face, but why would I lie? He was beautifully built. He was perhaps not conventionally handsome but he had a deep, primal appeal. One glance and you knew that this was a man who could take care of problems. Add that deep, gravelly voice and he was temptation incarnate.
Now that I wasn’t mesmerized by the amount of flesh on display, I saw that he was chained to the wall behind him from both ankles and wrists. The chains disappeared into the wall and their length could be adjusted. Right now, they were short enough that he couldn’t sit comfortably. Whoever he was, the mercs weren’t taking any chances with him.
I stood and wavered as sore muscles protested. Damn stunsticks to hell. With the bed taking up more than half of the floor space, there was barely any room to walk. I knew from the schematics that the cell was a meter and a half wide by three meters long. The barrier dropped down just past the two-meter mark, leaving my unfortunate cellmate trapped in a one-and-a-half by one-meter box. He wouldn’t be able to lie flat even if they released the chains enough to let him.
The barrier was blue, which should mean safe, but I’d known some people who thought it was funny to reprogram the system. I carefully reached out a finger and pressed it against the field. I didn’t get shocked, so I wouldn’t have to worry about avoiding it. Today was finally looking up.
“What are you doing?” Loch asked.
He raised a skeptical eyebrow but didn’t say anything else.
In addition to the bed, the only other features of the room were a tiny sink and, on the other side of the barrier, a toilet. The cell wasn’t designed to be permanently divided the way the mercs were using it. The barrier was meant to hold the prisoner away from the door while the cell was cleaned or maintained.
“Do you know how many crew are on board?” I asked.
“At least eight, maybe nine.”
A merchant ship of this size could be efficiently managed by as few as six, but the standard crew size was between eight and ten. If it was loaded out for maximum crew space, they could have up to fourteen.
The lights flickered and the floor vibrated with the subtle hum of running engines. The captain wasn’t wasting any time getting under way. I moved around the room, touching the cool steel walls seemingly at random. I knew we were being watched, and I didn’t want to make our audience nervous just yet.
“First time in a cell?”
“It’s rather small,” I said.
Loch barked out a laugh. “You get used to it. Let me guess, you’re a surfacer.”
Surfacers were people who grew up primarily on planets. Every day they woke up to big blue—or green or pink—skies, lots of solid ground under their feet, and plenty of room to roam.
Spacers, the people who grew up in the ships and stations floating around and between those same planets, seemed to think that surfacers had it easier. Even I knew that wasn’t always the case.
“What gave me away?” I asked. I’d lived entirely on ships and stations for the last two years. I’d gotten used to the smaller spaces, but I still longed for the wide-open blue sky of my home.
His answer was interrupted by a male voice through the intercom speaker. “Stand away from the door.”
I had not expected anyone so soon and this cell didn’t give me much room to fight. Chains rattled behind me. I glanced back as Loch stood to his full height. At a meter eighty in boots, I was a tall woman. Loch still had me beat by at least ten centimeters. Damn. Why were the attractive ones always criminals?
The door swung inward to reveal a young man with a shaggy mop of blond hair that looked like it had never seen a brush. He held an armful of frilly fuchsia fabric and a stunstick. “Give me any trouble and I’ve got permission to zap you,” he warned.
“Give me any trouble, and you’ll get a boot to the teeth,” I replied. “No permission required.”
He almost smiled. What do you know, a merc with a sense of humor—it was like I’d found a unicorn. I’d have to blame it on his age because he looked all of sixteen.
“You’re having dinner with the captain,” he said. “Here’s your dress.” He dropped the frilly monstrosity on the bed.
“No,” I said. I didn’t balk because of the frills, which were horrible, or the color, which was equally horrible. I refused because it was a dress. I had no problem with dresses in general, but on a ship full of hostile men, it was smarter for everyone if I didn’t go out of my way to advertise the fact that I was female.
“Umm, no to which part?” he asked hesitantly.
“I’ll dine with the captain, but I’m wearing my own clothes.” I had on a sturdy pair of black cargo pants, heavy black boots, and a long-sleeved black shirt. I wasn’t trying to win Monochromatic Monthly’s best dressed award, but black was easy to find, easy to match, and generally didn’t show dirt or grease stains as fast as other colors. Win, win, win.
I tilted my head ever so slightly and let my expression frost over. “I will dine with the captain, but I will be wearing my own clothes.”
He ducked his head. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Right this way.”
A deep chuckle followed us out.
The kid gripped the stunstick like he expected me to jump him at any moment. I guess word of my arrival had already spread to the rest of the crew. And, honestly, if they’d sent anyone else, I probably would’ve made an attempt at escape. If it came down to it, I would go through the kid if he stood between me and freedom, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
As we walked, I took in my surroundings. The captain had not spent much on interior upgrades. The walls were flat gray metal, the floor was steel grating, and the lights were few and far between. I saw at least three major wiring issues that would get them grounded if a safety officer ever bothered to do an inspection. The ship was holding up well for her age, but it was apparent that either the captain or his crew didn’t truly love her.
I, however, saw plenty to love. Access panels were open or missing. The wiring issues would be an easy way to disable some key ship systems. And the layout matched the reference layout, so I could find my way around even in the dark.
The kid led me to the captain’s chambers, which were exactly where I expected them to be. Yamado had been making this style ship for approximately a thousand years, give or take a few, and I was suddenly very glad that they liked to stick to tradition.
The captain’s entertaining space was brightly lit, with real wood floors, thick rugs, and antique furniture. A table that could seat sixteen dominated the middle of the room. Two place settings were laid out on the right side. The captain sat in an overstuffed chair next to a sideboard that was being used as a liquor cabinet. He rose to meet me. The skin around his left eye was already darkening.
I pulled on my public persona, affixed my politest smile to my lips, and tried not to think stabby thoughts. “Thank you for the dinner invitation, Captain.”
“Of course, my dear, of course,” he said. “Ada, may I call you Ada?” He continued before I had a chance to respond, “I know we got off to a bad start, but now that we are under way, I thought we could put all of that behind us. I know your father is quite eager to have you home.”
“I’m sure he is,” I murmured. Albrecht von Hasenberg was nothing if not thorough. When his security team couldn’t find me and drag me back for my engagement party, he went above and beyond by posting an enormous bounty for my safe return. Of course, he told the news, he was devastated that I was “missing.” He failed to mention that I had left of my own volition. Or that I’d been gone for two years.
“Can I get you some wine? Or perhaps brandy?” the captain asked.
“Wine would be lovely, thank you,” I said. I knew where this road led. I’d been playing this game since I could talk. The captain wanted something, and he thought—rightly—that House von Hasenberg could help him get it. As patriarch of one of the three High Houses, very few people in the universe wielded more power than my father.
As the fifth of six children, I wielded no power in House von Hasenberg at all. But the good captain didn’t know that, and outside of the Consortium, my name carried its own power.
“Please, call me Gerald,” he interrupted as he handed me a glass of wine with a shallow bow, “Gerald Pearson, at your service.”
I let a chill creep into my expression and he flushed. You did not interrupt a member of a High House if you wanted to keep breathing. By acknowledging who my father was, he’d moved me from bounty to potential ally, and now I was quickly moving to superior. It was his first mistake, but I didn’t hold it against him. He’d never had to swim with the glittering sharks of the Consortium. I had, and I excelled at it.
I hated it, but I excelled at it.
“Gerald,” I said with a dismissive little sniff, “have you already sent word to my father that I was found?”
“Of course, my lady,” he said, practically tripping over himself to get back into my good graces. “I let him know as soon as I returned to the ship. I also sent along a copy of our flight plan.”
Damn. Interstellar communication could be slow, but we were close enough to the gate that the message had probably already made it through. I would not put it past my father to send a fleet escort to meet us at the gate. My escape time just dropped to three or four days.
I sized the captain up as I toyed with my wineglass and made polite small talk. He was not a merc who had worked his way up to captain. He didn’t have the hardness, the craftiness that mercenaries wore like second skins. A true merc commander would never be so easy to play.
“Shall we dine?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” I said.
I made sure his wineglass was kept topped off and waited until the second course had been cleared away. “How can I help you, Gerald?” I asked in my warmest tone.
It took two more courses, but eventually the story came out. He was a merchant fallen on hard times, but he still had a ship. He’d partnered with the bounty hunters specifically to hunt Loch. They’d found him a few days ago, but Loch had killed two men during his capture, including the previous commander.
The mercenaries didn’t respect Gerald and he was afraid they were plotting his demise. And he was just so lucky to have found me because his third cousin once removed was married to a von Hasenberg second cousin’s sister-in-law and he just knew he had a great deal he could contribute to the House, considering he was almost family.
I nodded along and made all the right encouraging noises. The picture became clear. Even if I managed to overpower Gerald and take him hostage, the mercs wouldn’t care. He’d already created the flight plan, so the ship would deliver us to Earth without any further input from him. It was time to end the evening.
“I should go,” I said.
“You should stay,” he slurred. “You can sleep in my room.” He staggered to his feet.
I considered it. He was drunk enough that he’d probably be asleep as soon as he hit the bed. But I needed time to devise an escape plan and I couldn’t be caught wandering around the ship. So I just had to make sure this wasn’t my last dinner with the captain. I stood as well.
“Gerald, you naughty man,” I laughed and lightly touched his arm. “I never sleep with a man on the first date.”
He flushed and spluttered. “I didn’t mean—”
The tone of the engine changed and my stomach dropped as the FTL drive engaged. We’d traveled far enough away from the station for our first jump. The lights flickered as the ship switched to auxiliary power. The hum of the engines ratcheted up and then went silent. Less than a minute later, my stomach settled and the main engines started up again. Depending on the age of the ship, it would take up to a week to recharge the FTL drive for the next jump. I had to be gone before that time was up.
“I will see you tomorrow for dinner, yes?” I asked with a coy smile.
“Yes, yes, of course, my lady. The lad’ll see you back to your quarte—” He flinched. “I’m terribly sorry for your accommodations, but I’m afraid the mercs won’t like it if I move you.”
“It is fine. I like it; it makes me feel safe.” And I was surprised to find that it was true.
The same kid from before was waiting for me outside of the captain’s door. I wondered if he stood there all the time, and if so, was he looking out for the captain’s interests or the mercenaries’?
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Charles, but everyone calls me Chuck.”
“Chuck, I’m Ada. Pleased to meet you.” He ducked his head but didn’t respond.
We returned to my cell by the same path we’d taken earlier. When we arrived, the display next to the door showed Loch still standing in the back section. He had to have been standing for hours, but he wasn’t slumped or fidgeting. I made a quick decision that I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret.
“The captain said to lower the barrier,” I said. “So that if I need to use the facilities, they are available.”
“Umm…” Chuck stole a glance at the control screen, but he clearly had no idea what to do.
I swept past him. “Allow me.”
“I don’t think—”
But I was already tapping on the screen. I lowered the separator, set the lights to stay on all night at a dim setting, and lengthened Loch’s chains. He wouldn’t be able to stretch out, but at least he could sit. And I would remain out of his reach.
“Easy peasy,” I said. “I could teach you, if you’d like.”
The kid eyed the video display with distrust, but it was easy to see that Loch remained chained. I prayed that Loch wouldn’t move and give away the fact that his chains were longer, but he still stood in the same position. I wondered if he was sleeping standing up. Was that even possible?
“I don’t need help from you,” Chuck said. “The crew is teaching me everything I need to know.” He swung the door open. “Now get in there and don’t give me any trouble.”
I entered the dim cell and the door slammed closed behind me. Without the energy field separating us, Loch seemed bigger, more immediate, and vastly more dangerous. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I just had to keep reminding myself that we both wanted the same thing.
I tilted my head slightly toward the door, and Loch barely shook his head. I hadn’t heard the kid leave, either, so I had to assume we had an audience.
“Did you miss me while I was gone?” I asked.
“Ah, that’s too bad. Would you like to hear about the captain’s quarters?”
I couldn’t help the slightly evil edge to my smile as I began to describe, in excruciating detail, the captain’s dining room. Every rug was lovingly described, as was every vase, flower, piece of furniture, and place setting.
After five minutes, Loch stepped away from the wall with a rattle of chains. “He’s gone, but feel free to keep talking. I was nearly asleep.”
“Did they feed you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I ate.”
I’d spent three months as part of a merc crew shortly after I left home. I’d been on my own for the first time and thought—incorrectly—that being part of a crew would help my homesickness. It wasn’t a total waste, though, because I learned a great many lessons in that short time and the nomadic lifestyle helped me stay ahead of Father’s security team in the crucial first months.
One of the lessons I learned was that bounty-hunting mercenaries, by and large, were ruthless and sadistic. Even the higher-tier crew I joined was not exempt. They loved to torture their captives by providing just enough food to prevent the captive from dying, but not enough to prevent constant, aching hunger. It also kept the captive weak enough to be easy to manage, so in their minds, it was a win-win.
Loch did not look weak, but according to the captain they’d only had him for a few days.
I pulled two dinner rolls wrapped in a paper napkin out of one of the pockets on my pants. After all, what was the point of pants with so many pockets if I wasn’t going to use them? And if they failed to pat me down after dinner, then that was hardly my fault.
“Sadly, nothing else would transport well, so it is bread or nothing. But I’m willing to give you these two delicious rolls in exchange for your name. I know the mercs call you Loch, but I don’t know if that’s your first or last name or something they made up.”
“You’re trying to bribe me with bread?”
“Yes. Is it working? I’m Ada.”
“I know who you are,” Loch said.
It was my turn to be surprised. I might be a von Hasenberg, but I’d never been in the spotlight like my four eldest siblings. Those four all looked like younger versions of our father, even poor Hannah and Bianca. I had the golden skin, dark hair, and blue-gray eyes of our mother. Only our youngest sister, Catarina, shared my coloring.
“And so you are…?” I prompted.
“Marcus Loch,” he finally replied.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said. I tossed him the bread, napkin and all. We might be making polite conversation, but I had no doubt that Mr. Marcus Loch would eat me alive if I ventured too close.
Marcus Loch. The name sounded familiar. I mentally sorted through the rosters of important people in all three High Houses, trying to place him. I knew he wasn’t part of House von Hasenberg. He couldn’t be directly part of House Yamado or House Rockhurst, either, because he would have their name. So either he was a distant relation or an in-law, but I couldn’t remember. Where had I heard that name and who had he pissed off to get such a bounty?
“Let me save you some time,” he said as if reading my mind. “I’m Marcus Loch, the so-called Devil of Fornax Zero, and the man with the highest bounty in the ’verse… at least until you showed up.”
It was only thanks to long practice that I managed to keep my expression perfectly placid. Now the chains made sense, as did the mercs’ wariness. The Royal Consortium claimed that Marcus Loch had killed at least a dozen of his commanding officers and fellow soldiers during the suppression of the Fornax Rebellion. Then he disappeared.
The Consortium put out an ever-increasing bounty, but so far no bounty hunter had been able to bring him in to claim it. Rumor had it that he’d been caught six or seven times, but every time he had escaped and left nothing but a pile of bodies behind.
Marcus Loch was a deserter, a killer, and a traitor to the Consortium. And he was just the man I needed.
“How long did it take you to perfect that mask?” Loch asked between bites of bread.
I raised one imperious eyebrow and stared down my nose at him, even though he was taller than me and across the room. After seeing the expression work so well for my mother, I’d practiced it in the mirror and wielded it without mercy. Lesser prey would flee at the merest hint of it.
So, of course, Loch grinned. “That long, huh?”
“Longer.” I sat on the bed and rubbed my face. After being on all evening with the captain, I was exhausted. “Haven’t had much use for it lately. I must be out of practice; you’re supposed to be trembling with fear.”
“It takes more than your pert little nose in the air to scare me, darlin’,” he drawled, dropping the g. As if to emphasize his point, he stretched his arms and rolled his massive shoulders. He slid down the wall and sat. “I suppose I have you to thank for this?” He rattled the chain that bound his leg to the wall. At least now he could stretch out his legs.
“Seemed like the neighborly thing,” I said.
I scooted back and wedged myself in the front corner of the cell, where the bed was pushed up against the walls. I’d slept sitting up before, and being in a corner made it easier. With the bed attached to the floor, at least I didn’t have to worry about him dragging me closer.
“Smart,” I countered. He grunted.
Ships and stations usually operated on Universal Standard Time, so it was the clock I was accustomed to. And right now, it was well after midnight. I need to talk to Loch about a possible alliance, but I needed to be on point to get it right—I couldn’t just steamroll over him like I’d done with the captain.
He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. All of that glorious skin and muscle was on display, which prompted a question. “Why’d they strip you?”
He cracked an eye at me. “Easier than patting me down after I kept coming up with shivs. It seems they didn’t share my appreciation of a good blade. You going to talk all night?”
“Maybe. Would you like me to lull you to sleep with tales of the captain’s tablecloth?”
His groan was answer enough.
I slept fitfully through the first half of the night. I kept imagining Loch prowling closer, which would jolt me awake. But every time I checked, he sat on his side of the cell. After the fourth time, I eyed his chains, calculated the distance, and curled up on the end of the bed farthest from him. Lying down helped, and I slept better.
I awoke to the cell door banging open. “Rise and shine, princess. Captain says you get to use the crew head.” John, the blond merc who’d wrestled me into the ship, stood in the doorway. I could hear the derision in his voice when he mentioned the captain—perhaps Gerald wasn’t wrong about the crew plotting his demise.
I obediently followed him down the same path I’d taken last night, but instead of turning left into the captain’s quarters, we went right toward the crew quarters. More people were up and around this morning and more than one merc eyed me a little too long.
I passed another woman, but any hope of sympathy died when I met her baleful stare. She wore the dark camouflage fatigues that seemed to be the merc uniform and had her long hair braided down her back. Female mercenaries weren’t rare, but they generally preferred either more gender-balanced groups or higher-tier squads; being the only woman on a ship that could spend months in space was a tough gig, especially with the men that made up most of the merc squads—cream of the crop they were not.
John stopped and pushed open the door to the crew bathroom. “You get five minutes,” he said. “Then I’m coming in after you.” He held up a control tablet with a lecherous grin.
I stepped into the room and bolted the door. He could use the tablet to open the lock, but I wasn’t going to make it too easy for him. The room was tiny, but brightly lit and surprisingly clean. A toilet, sink, and shower were the only features. No towels or personal items were anywhere to be found. I took care of business then splashed water on my face. I’d love a shower, but there was no way I was taking my clothes off on this ship.
A glance in the mirror revealed dark under-eye circles that made my eyes appear more gray than blue. My deep brown hair stuck up in every direction. Without a brush, there was only so much I could do, so I French-braided it to contain the worst of it. My upper arms sported fading bruises from where the mercs had grabbed me.
The lock clicked open and the door swung inward. “Time’s up, princess,” John said. He looked disappointed that I was fully clothed and merely standing in front of the sink. It had been less than three minutes.
He pulled me out by my upper arm and made a show of dragging me back to my cell. I let him pull me along instead of ruining the show by easily pacing him. Picking my battles was a skill I’d learned the hard way while growing up, but one that I had eventually learned.
It took until my early teens for me to realize that banging my head against Father’s will got me nowhere. Feigning compliance while ultimately working toward my own goals worked much better. All of my siblings had learned to be crafty in their own way because the other option was to become a slave to Father’s will, and we were all too stubborn to let that happen.
I held my tongue—barely—as the merc shoved me into the cell. “I suggest you hug the door, princess. It’s exercise time.” With that parting shot, he closed and locked the door. A few seconds later, the whine of motors and distinctive sound of chain links hitting the floor echoed through the cell.
As much as I hated obeying orders, I backed up until I was leaning against the door. Loch was still an unknown and with the amount of chain spooling out, he was going to have the run of the cell. I didn’t think the merc was stupid enough to actually let Loch reach me, but it would be close.
“That merc must really hate you,” Loch said. He rolled to his feet in a movement so smooth it was a thing of beauty. Or it would’ve been, if I didn’t feel like a gazelle mesmerized by a lion.
“I’m pretty sure he’s the one I nailed in the knee,” I said, watching Loch warily. “Then I didn’t try for a shower, so he couldn’t drag me out naked. I think I ruined his week.”
“Do you think he’s good at math?” Loch asked. He was still near his side of the cell, but he was looking at the chain coiled on the floor. “Shall we find out?”
Even knowing it was coming, the lunge was nearly too fast to see. The chains snapped taut with Loch less than a foot away. The merc had been okay at math, but he was bad at kinesiology because Loch leaned forward until his chest nearly brushed mine. Sure, his arms and legs couldn’t reach me, but that didn’t mean I was safe.
“My, what big teeth you have,” I murmured.
“The better to eat you with, my dear,” he replied without missing a beat.
I gripped the door handle behind my back, so Loch wouldn’t be able to drag me farther into the cell. I rested my free hand on his chest. His flesh was warm and firm. He leaned into my hand. Up close, he was massive. It had been years since I’d felt dainty, but standing next to this wall of solid muscle, I did.
“Been a while since I was this close to a lady of a House,” he said. His face was mere centimeters away.
“Don’t make me stab you,” I breathed. I knew the merc was just outside, watching the video, and I didn’t want him to know that I’d stolen more than bread last night. “I’d hate to leave a hole in this beautiful chest.”
He chuckled and some of the pressure eased off of my hand. “Do you trust me?” he asked in the same barely audible tone.
“Not even a little bit,” I said.
“But you want off this ship.”
“Yes, but not in a body bag,” I said.
“You drive a hard bargain, darling, but fine. Give me your knife.”
“What part of ‘not in a body bag’ led you to believe that’s even a possibility?” I hissed.
“Too late,” he said.
I heard a shout from outside and in a damn rookie mistake, I stopped focusing on the immediate threat to focus on the new sound. I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye, but I was too slow. Loch pinned me against the door with his upper body and his mouth covered mine.
The kiss was hot and hard and over almost before it began. Metal screeched as the motors engaged to reel in the chains. Loch retreated across the room. I touched my lips. If he’d gone for my neck, he could’ve done enough damage that even my nanos might not have been able to save me. But instead he’d kissed me. Why?
Loch was pulled all the way back to the wall and the energy divider went up with a hiss. The door unlocked behind me and I stepped away to allow it to swing inward. I composed myself, then did the opposite when I heard the captain’s voice.
“Are you okay, my lady?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, Gerald,” I sniffled. “Everything was fine and then that man was loose and he was attacking me, and thank you so much for rescuing me!” I wailed and threw myself into his arms.
“There, there,” he said, awkwardly patting my back. “John made a mistake, but it’s all fixed now. Loch is safely behind the barrier. Why don’t you lie down and rest and I’ll have someone bring you breakfast?”
“Oh, thank you so much. But don’t forget to feed him,” I said with a little shudder and a tilt of my head. “I don’t want him looking at me like I’m food all day.”
“Of course, of course. Don’t worry about a thing.”
The captain left and a few minutes later the kid from the night before, Chuck, came in carrying two trays. One was laid out with bacon, eggs, and waffles. The other held a bowl of oatmeal.
Chuck glanced at me, the barrier, and me again. “Umm, can you…? John must’ve forgotten.” He set the food on the bed and backed up to the open door.
“Sure.” I followed him out and stopped in front of the control panel. “Are you sure you don’t want to watch what I do? Just in case you need to know how?”
Chuck didn’t say anything, but he didn’t look away either. I showed him how to raise and lower the separator, as well as lengthen the chains so Loch could feed himself. “Understand?”
The kid nodded and ushered me back into the cell. “Thanks,” he whispered before he left.
“Making friends?” Loch asked.
“The mercs are holding the kid back. If I can help him, why wouldn’t I?”
“Why does anyone from a House do anything? For personal gain.”
He was not wrong, and it stung. I didn’t mind helping the kid, and in other circumstances I would’ve done the same. But in this case, the kid was between me and freedom and if I could win him to my side, it helped me.
But it took one manipulator to spot another, and Mr. Kissy McKissyface over there wasn’t off the hook. Kissing me was his own form of manipulation. I tried to win him to my side with food and conversation. He went with a more direct approach. And the hell of it was, it was working. He’d had the opportunity to hurt me, and because he didn’t, I found myself more willing to trust him. I needed to be careful or I’d be outmaneuvered and left behind.
I dumped the eggs and all but one slice of bacon on top of the oatmeal. It wasn’t super appetizing, but calories were calories and I doubted he’d complain about getting extra. I kept the waffles and remaining bacon slice.
“Reach out your hands as far as you can,” I said. I should’ve put the food on his side then released the chains, but I hadn’t been thinking.
He lifted his hands but made no effort to take the slack out of the chain.
“If you don’t want to eat, that’s cool, too.” I set the bowl down and picked up my slice of bacon. God, I loved bacon. I eyed his bowl.
“Hand it over.” He had stepped away from the wall and taken the slack out of the chain.
I gripped the very edge of the bowl. “No sudden moves, because if you startle me and I drop your bowl, that’s tough,” I warned. I passed the bowl to him without incident. He wolfed down the food. They definitely had been starving him.
“I don’t suppose you’d fill this with water?” he asked, holding out the bowl. His chains weren’t long enough to reach the sink. I carefully took it from him, rinsed out the residue, and handed it back full of water. He drained it. “Again?”
I saw the slack in the chain just before my hand moved into range. He was fast, but this time I was faster. I pulled back and he caught nothing but air. “I suppose that’s what I get for trying to be nice,” I muttered.
“Don’t be that way. You know you’d do the same if the situation was reversed.”
I finished my breakfast and set the tray aside. I sat cross-legged on the bed and closed my eyes. I needed to focus and plan. Meditation had never been about empty stillness for me; instead, it was when I did my best thinking.
I cleared my mind of everything except the problem: escape. This ship should have an escape vessel with a short-range FTL drive. New, modern warships with the fastest computers could jump several thousand light-years at a time. Ships like this Yamado frigate could jump several hundred, depending on how old the computers were. The escape ship could jump less than a hundred and probably closer to fifty. That plus the increased recharge time between jumps meant it could easily take a month to get back to a populated planet or station if you weren’t close to a gate.
Gates were essentially giant, specialized supercomputers. They could accurately plot safe jump endpoints millions of light-years away. Gates generally operated in sets of two or more, not because it was required, but because if you jumped a million light-years and didn’t have a gate to calculate your return trip, you were either stuck or you risked jumping with bad data. More than one ship had ended up in an asteroid in the early days of FTL drives.
To get a jump point, you entered the queue. Depending on the gate’s age and level of activity, it could take anywhere between hours and minutes to clear the queue, because the gate could only calculate a fixed number of jump points at once. Older gates were the slowest, but they were often in deserted sectors, so it balanced out.
Gates also worked as communication hubs, because they talked to each other via faster-than-light transmissions to calculate safe jump points around other ship traffic. FTL communication required vast amounts of energy and a very precise, very expensive setup, so most ’verse communication bounced through the gates rather than being sent directly with FTL transmissions.
We were several hundred light-years from the closest gate. The escape ship should have emergency supplies for fourteen people for four weeks, assuming they hadn’t been raided by the mercs. It was a glorified lifeboat, meant to hold the crew until their SOS reached a nearby ship. But for me, it was my ticket to freedom.
So, step one: verify the escape ship existed and was in working order.
Step two: convince Marcus Loch that we’d make better friends than enemies. It was hard to manipulate a manipulator, but I wasn’t the daughter of a High House for nothing. One thing I had to give my parents credit for: they raised all six of their children as if we were the direct heirs. We all had the same tutors, learned the same secrets, and honed our skills in the same Consortium ballrooms.
As the fifth child, I might be nothing more than a political pawn to be auctioned off to the man with the most to offer the House for my hand in marriage, but I’d learned everything required to be a von Hasenberg. Of course, my parents didn’t do it out of the kindness of their hearts—let’s not be crazy. They did it because I was expected to spy on my future husband’s business and personal life for them. After all, House von Hasenberg came first, even if I was sold to a man from a rival House or business.
And Father wondered why I fled.
I turned my thoughts back to escape. Step three: create a big enough distraction that Loch and I could make our way to the escape ship. My original thought was that Loch would be the distraction, but I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to condone killing ten people, even if I wasn’t the one pulling the trigger or holding the knife.
“You asleep, darling?”
“No,” I said without opening my eyes. “And my name is Ada.”
“You asleep, darling Ada?”
I cracked one eye open enough to scowl at him. “I’m rather busy plotting my escape. Did you need something?”
“You’re never going to escape just by sitting there,” he said.
“Of course not; I will escape through the ceiling. Or perhaps the wall, I haven’t quite decided because it depends on whether I decide to trust you.” I closed my eye and pretended to go back to my meditation.
“There is no way out through either of those.”
I made a noncommittal sound.
“I’ve spent more hours in these cells than you can imagine. There are no weak points, no way out except for the door.”
“If you say so,” I agreed easily. I waited.
It took longer than I expected, but finally he growled, “Where?”
I opened my eyes and met his stare. “I will tell you when I trust you.”
“Or you’re making shit up.”
I shrugged. “I could be. But I’m a von Hasenberg and this is a Yamado ship. We’re competitors, you know. I know as much about Yamado and Rockhurst ships as I do about our own. Maybe more.”
“How do I earn your trust?”
I smiled at the phrasing. He would’ve done well in a Consortium ballroom. So I gave him an honest answer in return. “Slowly,” I said. “But we may not have time for that. Captain Pearson sent our flight plan to my father before our first jump. Depending on how fast my father can free up ships and where they are, he’s likely to have an escort waiting for us at the gate. If he received the message extremely quickly, it’s possible he’ll scramble a ship to meet us here, but that’s less likely.”
“And I suppose Albrecht von Hasenberg won’t miss the opportunity to bring in the Devil of Fornax Zero.”
“Not if he knows you’re on board. He’ll pay your bounty out of his own pocket, just to be the one to bring you to the Consortium. And there will be no escape from his ship.”
“You don’t know what I’m capable of, darling Ada,” he rumbled. His voice alone was dangerous. It vibrated over my skin like a caress. And every time he called me darling, my heart tried to do a little flip, even though I knew it wasn’t an endearment.
Yeah, I didn’t know what he was capable of, but I knew that he was trouble.
Loch and I each spent the rest of the day lost in our own thoughts. I tried to talk to him a few times when I grew tired of thinking in circles, but he just grunted at me or answered with single syllables. Apparently the knowledge that my father’s fleet was en route had goaded him into moving up his own escape attempt and he had no time for idle chatter.
I ended up with two plans, one where Loch and I worked together, and one where we were adversaries. It was a fair guess that we’d both be going for the escape ship, so I had to either reach it first or make myself indispensable to its launch.
By the time Chuck came to retrieve me for dinner, I still wasn’t sure which plan was more likely to play out. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts, I didn’t notice that a third person had joined us for dinner until I was already halfway into the room.
“Hello, Gerald,” I said. “And I believe you are John, yes?” I asked the blond man who had dragged me back to my cell earlier. I smiled shyly. I kept the smile as he grinned lasciviously and bent to kiss the back of my hand, though I wanted nothing more than to smash a knee into his face.
His presence meant he was angling for the open commander position. He also changed the game and I subtly altered my persona. Mercs in general didn’t take well to superiors and this one in particular seemed to like his women meek and afraid.
Even so, dinner was trying. John sat across from me, thank heavens, so I didn’t have to ward off wandering hands. But his gaze rarely strayed above my breasts and all of his comments were so rife with innuendo that it could hardly even be called innuendo.
I kept my voice soft and my eyes down—though he never bothered to look that high—all while mentally plotting the most painful demise I could come up with. Feeding him alive to the lava worms of Centarii Delta Seven was currently in the lead.
When the proximity alarms started blaring I was in a dark enough mood to almost hope for a rogue asteroid. Or perhaps just a very carefully placed micrometeoroid that would find its way through the merc sitting across from me. I’d happily deal with the hull breech for hours if the universe would be so kind.
“Mayport, show me the outside cameras,” the captain barked. “And silence the damn alarms.”
The far wall lit up with video feeds from outside the ship. It wasn’t an asteroid—it was far worse. A Rockhurst battle cruiser filled the display. The designation marked it as one of House Rockhurst’s personal ships. Somehow, I didn’t think they were here to pay a social call.
“Incoming communication,” the ship’s computer intoned.
“Answer it,” the captain said before I could caution him against it or find a place to hide.
The video came up and Richard Rockhurst’s face came into focus. The fourth of five Rockhurst children, he was a handsome man with the trademark Rockhurst blond hair and blue eyes. At twenty-five he was only two years older than me, but he’d been in command of one of House Rockhurst’s most prominent ships for nearly six years.
The responsibility had hardened him, and the amusing young man I had played with as a child at Consortium events was nowhere to be found. Rumors of the ship’s more heinous problem-solving techniques were rampant, though no one had enough proof or enough power to officially charge him with criminal conduct.
His expression didn’t even flicker at my presence. He’d either known I was on board, or gotten much better at hiding his thoughts. “Ah, Captain Pearson, I see the rumors are true. You have found and rescued my lovely betrothed. Hello, Lady von Hasenberg.”
I decided that quibbling about semantics would do me no favors. We weren’t technically betrothed, as he hadn’t asked and I hadn’t accepted, but it had been a long-standing assumption that one day we would be. I’d left before anything official was finalized. My escape had not improved the already strained relationship between our Houses.
I inclined my head a fraction. “Captain Rockhurst, I am glad to see you are well. As I am sure you are aware, my father has been notified about my rescue and subsequent travel plans.”
“Indeed, my lady, that’s why I’m here. Once he heard I was in the area, Lord von Hasenberg asked me to personally escort you home onboard the Santa Celestia. Of course, Captain Pearson, you will still receive the bounty for her rescue.”
If my father asked a Rockhurst to so much as take out his garbage, I’d eat my own boot. But neither of the two men sharing the dining room with me sensed anything was amiss. In fact, John was practically rubbing his hands together at the thought of getting paid earlier than expected.
What was Richard planning?
“Shall I begin preparations for a transport shuttle?” Richard Rockhurst asked.
“Of course, my lord. I will prepare our docking bay,” Gerald said.
“Thank you. And please keep Lady von Hasenberg a safe distance away. I know docking accidents are rare these days, but I won’t risk my future wife.”
Gerald was already nodding. “Yes, my lord, quite right. She’ll be perfectly safe here in my quarters until your party arrives.”
“Thank you, Captain. I will contact you once our transport shuttle is prepared.” The video screen went dark.
“How did you send word to my father?” I asked. “Was it encrypted?”
Gerald looked affronted. “Of course it was. I used the high-priority merchant encryption channels.”
The encryption on the merchant channels was as easy to break as wet tissue paper. All three Houses routinely monitored merchant traffic. Why, oh, why hadn’t he used the diplomatic channels? At least those took some effort to crack.
“We need to jump, and we need to do it right now,” I said.
“My lady, calm down. Rockhurst is going to return you to your family even quicker than I could,” Gerald said. “Besides, our FTL drive won’t be ready for another three days.”
“Rockhurst is not on your side. He’s not on my side. He’s a member of a rival House who just happened to show up in a battle cruiser exactly where you said you were taking me on the insecure merchant channels. Because you used the merchant channels, my father will be hustling ships out here, but since they’re not here yet, we’re on our own.”
“You’re overreacting, princess,” John said. “I’ve dealt with the Rockhursts before; you just don’t want to acknowledge when you’re beaten.”
“The Santa Celestia can hold two battalions of highly trained shock troopers with room to spare. It is routinely used to clean up messes that House Rockhurst wants swept under the rug. The only reason they haven’t blown us out of the sky, I’m guessing, is because they want me as a political hostage. The rest of you are collateral damage.”
Now even the captain was looking at me like I was crazy. “Mayport, prepare the docking bay for transport shuttle arrival.”
“Yes, Captain,” the ship’s computer replied. “Opening the docking bay port. Expected completion: ten minutes.” Merchant ships didn’t have landing bays, so they had to rely on older docking technology. And since a dock port was essentially a hole in the side of the ship, it was protected by heavy blast doors that had to be opened before ships could dock.
“John, why don’t you go find a couple men to meet the Rockhurst team. I don’t expect trouble,” the captain said with a glance at me, “but it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. I’ll send word when the shuttle is on its way and will meet you in the docking bay.”
John looked like he wanted to protest, but he decided leaving was easier than arguing. The captain refused to listen to my warnings, so we sat in tense silence as the minutes ticked by.
“Docking port available,” the computer chimed.
I clenched my hands together and sat like a statue. This would be the one exception where I would appreciate my father’s interference, but the outside cameras showed the Rockhurst ship and nothing else. I had warned the captain and the mercs, so I no longer felt responsible for them. They had chosen their own path. Now I just needed to get myself off-ship as soon as possible.
It seemed like an age had passed when the computer finally said, “Incoming communication,” but it had probably only been fifteen minutes.
“Accept,” Gerald said.
Richard’s face once again filled the screen. “We’re all set over here, Captain Pearson, if you’re ready for us.”
“We’re ready, my lord.”
“Fantastic. I regret that I have to stay with the Santa Celestia, but I’m sending my second-in-command and my most trusted security agents to escort Lady von Hasenberg back, as well as my purser to settle our account.”
“Thank you, my lord. I will go meet them in the docking bay while Lady von Hasenberg rests here in comfort.”
Richard nodded curtly and the video ended.
“You won’t tell him that we locked you in a cell with Loch, will you?” the captain asked hesitantly.
“No,” I said. I didn’t plan to tell Richard anything because I didn’t plan to allow him to capture me.
Gerald looked relieved. “I’m going to lock you in, for your own safety, you understand. I’ll be back with your security escort.”
I nodded. Already I could see the transport shuttle breaking away from the Santa Celestia on the video monitor. I had precious little time to act, so I need the captain to leave already. He finally did, locking the door behind him.
I went to the wall and slid open the cover to reveal the control panel. A password prompt greeted me, but I pulled up the hidden diagnostic panel and entered the default Yamado override codes. I didn’t even blink when they worked. No one changed the default codes, because only a couple dozen people in the ’verse even knew they existed. And while Yamado changed the codes every so often to try to keep rival Houses out of their ships, older ships often weren’t updated to the new codes.
I shut down several of the warning systems and unlocked the escape ship hatch. I pulled up a video of the docking bay. John and another merc lounged against the wall. The captain hadn’t arrived yet. No one seemed armed.
A glance confirmed the Rockhurst transport shuttle was nearing our ship. I pulled up voice control and added myself as a captain. “Mayport, this is Ada von Hasenberg, authorize.”
“Welcome, Captain von Hasenberg. You are authorized.”
“Mayport, close the docking bay port.”
“Unable to comply. An inbound ship has already started the docking sequence.”
“Mayport, unlock the captain’s weapon locker.”
A panel to my left slid aside to reveal a neat array of weapons that looked new. I strapped on a blast pistol holster and loaded my pockets with knives and extra energy cartridges. Finally, I slung a blast rifle over each shoulder.
The vid screen revealed that the captain had made it to the docking bay, as had the shuttle. The docking process was under way.
“Mayport, unlock the captain’s quarters.”
I heard the lock disengage. I closed the weapons locker and moved back to the control panel, weighted down by my weaponry. I wanted to see what would happen in the docking bay. My own exit depended on how Richard planned to play this.
The docking door opened and Gerald moved toward the shuttle with a smile and extended hand. A blast caught him in the chest. The two mercs didn’t even have time to raise their weapons before they were cut down. A squad of eight emerged from the shuttle with military precision. They were in full combat gear, including full-face helmets.
On the control panel, I quickly requested a copy of the surveillance video be sent priority to my House account. It would be a good bargaining piece against Richard.
Now, it was time for me to go.
I exited the captain’s quarters and stepped out into the hallway. The ship went dark.
“Mayport, switch to auxiliary power.”
I got no response. The Rockhurst soldiers had taken out the lights and ship’s computer, but left the life-support systems, including gravity. And they did it in less than a minute. If they had some sort of plug-in override, that would almost be worth risking certain death to retrieve.
Sometimes even I couldn’t outrun my von Hasenberg genes.
Shouts erupted from the hall that led to the crew quarters as the mercs tried to figure out what was going on. I needed to move before they decided to come this way, but I was frozen in the dark.
Luminescent eyes glinted in my memory.
I headed to the holding cells, counting doors and following the schematic in my head. Once I reached what I hoped was the right door, I fumbled until I found the manual release.
“Been having fun, darling?” his voice rumbled from the dark.
“A squad of eight Rockhurst soldiers just took out the captain and the power. A Rockhurst battle cruiser is pacing us off our starboard side. I’ll pay you a hundred thousand credits to get me safely to a planet or station with an interstellar port and let me go. You can have the escape ship after that. I’ve already unlocked it, but the mercs might have the same plan at this point. You have five seconds to decide.”
I was met with silence. “Marcus?”
“What are you waiting for?” he said from directly in front of me.
I froze as he lifted one of the rifles from my shoulder and pulled a pair of knives out of my pocket. Holy shit, he was loose, and I couldn’t see a thing. How had he gotten out of the chains?
I fell back on my training. “So we have a deal?” I asked coolly.
“Yeah, we have a deal. Wait here,” he said, pushing me just inside the cell. “If you see anyone, shoot them.”
I laughed quietly. “I can’t see shit,” I admitted.
“I know. But I won’t be carrying a light, so if anyone is, shoot first, ask questions later. I’ll be back in three.”
I didn’t hear him leave, but I had the sense that he was gone. I pulled the pistol from the holster and flicked off the safety, grateful, for once, that my unconventional childhood had included weapons classes. I wasn’t a sniper by any measure, but if someone came down the narrow hallway with a light, I’d have good odds of hitting them somewhere fatal.
Time stretched thin. Distant yells and blaster discharges echoed strangely through the ship. The docking bay was past the crew quarters. So was the escape ship. The overhead access tunnels would get us close, but the firewall between the bays and the rest of the ship meant we’d have to go through one of two main hallway hatches to reach the escape ship.
I began to wonder if Loch had left me behind. The credits I’d offered him were a fortune by any standard, but if he’d decided I’d slow him down, he could’ve realized that being alive was better than being rich.
A boot scuffed on the floor from the direction of the crew quarters. My heart sped up. Whoever it was didn’t have a light, but Loch had not made a sound either time he moved. And I was loaded down with items that would make noise the second I shifted a centimeter. I barely breathed.
“Where are you, you little bitch?” a female voice whispered from just down the hall. If she had night vision, I was so screwed. The air shifted in front of me and a hand or arm brushed against the doorway.
“Ah—” Her quiet exclamation was cut short on a wet gurgle, followed by a soft thump a little farther down the hall to my left.
“Don’t shoot,” Loch whispered. “It’s me.”
I reengaged the safety and holstered the pistol. “About time,” I hissed.
“Ah, sweetheart, did you think I’d leave without you?”
I didn’t bother to confirm what he already knew. I tried not to think about the woman’s body just down the hall. It turns out the darkness was good for one thing, at least.
“I couldn’t find you any goggles, so you’ll just have to trust me and follow my lead. The soldiers have three mercs pinned down in the mess hall, and for the moment they’re at a standoff. We’ll have to take the access tunnels to come down behind them.”
I was not looking forward to crawling through the access tunnels in the dark. Even with lights they were claustrophobic. In the dark, one wrong turn could mean endless hours spent finding the correct path again. But the other option was a much longer route through potentially locked-down maintenance areas, so I swallowed my fear and focused on the next problem. “I need to rearrange my gear. I jingle loud enough for them to hear on the Santa Celestia,” I said.
Before I could protest, Loch rifled through my pockets, rearranging knives and ammo to his liking. It was quick and professional—his hands didn’t stray. My pockets felt lighter and I wondered if I’d been left with any weapons. I checked my holster; I still had my pistol.
Loch must’ve been watching me. “You have your pistol and a knife in each back pocket. Your side pockets each contain an extra energy cartridge. I have both rifles and most of the rest. Good job, by the way. You’ll have to tell me how you managed to raid the captain’s private stash—nothing else worth having on this heap.”
“I knew Captain Rockhurst wasn’t coming over for tea,” I said. “I thought it best to be prepared.”
He chuckled and the sound wrapped around me in the dark. “How well do you know this ship’s layout?”
“I found you in the dark,” I said. “As long as the access tunnels still match the reference schematics, I know where to go.”
“Good, you lead. The ladder is just in front of you and the hatch is open. But if I say, ‘down,’ you flatten yourself to the deck, no questions, understand? And wait once we get to the other side. I’ll go down first. If you can lead us to the farther hatch, that would be better.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I muttered. I stepped forward with my arms out until I found the promised ladder. I mentally pulled up the schematic for this ship. This tunnel should lead back over the cell we were in for fifteen meters or so, then it would branch left and right. The left branch would take us over the crew quarters. The right branch led deeper into maintenance areas and then, after a few more turns, to the second bay access door.
“I’m right behind you,” Loch said as I hesitated.
I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be comforting or intimidating.
– – – – – – –
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